The images are familiar now, iconic even: Heavily armed RCMP officers use an axe and a chainsaw to break down the door of a tiny house.
Indigenous land defenders, their faces marked with red handprints to symbolize Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, stand inside with arms raised as police aim high-calibre rifles at them.
Days later, after enduring what has been described as petty and punitive treatment in holding cells, they emerge from the courts exhausted, no sign of the hair braids they carefully tied with strands of plastic wrap seconded from microwaved meals because the releasing officers demanded they “return police property.”
When RCMP conducted its November 2021 raids on the Wet’suwet’en reoccupation of the nation’s unceded territory — which blocked access to Coastal GasLink pipeline worksites — the world watched. Tensions between industry and Indigenous people in the region flared into a conflict and B.C. opted for the third time to resolve it by deploying a paramilitary-style police operation.
Land defenders blocked the road into the territory on Nov. 14, after 50 days of occupying a site near where the company plans to drill under the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River.) Workers were issued an evacuation order and given 10 hours to leave. But only a handful left — in part because not all of them were told of the evacuation order, according to reporting by The Tyee. Approximately 500 employees and subcontractors were stranded at work camps deep on the territory, a detail which would be cited as a catalyst for police action with the RCMP and provincial government characterizing the operation as a “rescue mission.”
Senior RCMP officials had discussions with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs — who never consented to the pipeline — about convening a “summit meeting” to resolve the situation.
According to documents obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information legislation, B.C. RCMP Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs wrote an email early on Nov. 16 to the Office of the Wet’suwet’en — an administrative body which represents the Hereditary Chiefs — as a follow-up to a discussion he’d had with its executive director, Debbie Pierre, the night before.
“I hope the Wet’suwet’en communities continue to recover from the recent COVID outbreaks,” he wrote, noting their evening phone call as well as recent “very positive discussions” he’d had with Chief Woos, whose house territory sits at the centre of the dispute.
Then he changes his tone.
“However, the actions of the land defenders on Sunday that has closed off the Morice Forest Service Road has caused a number of concerns related to public safety.” He concludes, “It would be difficult to for [sic] a summit meeting to occur with the RCMP if the road remains closed.”
Two hours later, he forwarded his email to Wayne Rideout, assistant deputy minister and director of police services with B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety & Solicitor General. “It occurred to me that it’s important to formally request in writing to the Wet’suwet’en to open up the road prior to enforcement,” he wrote. “I don’t expect much of a timely response.”
By the time Stubbs was in conversation with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en on Nov. 15, the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group, a special unit set up in 2017 to police protests of industrial projects in B.C., had already received approval to deploy resources to conduct the raids, the documents show. Ward Lymburner, a former police officer and senior official with B.C.’s public safety ministry, confirmed authorization to John Brewer, the unit’s gold commander, at 11:33 a.m. that day.
Dinï ze’ (Hereditary Chief) Na’moks told The Narwhal the chiefs were actively working towards meeting with RCMP and representatives of the federal and provincial governments.
“We were talking with full intentions of doing this meeting and then they sent an invasion — their decisions had already been made,” he said in an interview.
Shiri Pasternak, co-founder of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nations-led research organization, and an assistant professor in criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), said the content and tone of the message is coercive.
“On the surface of it, it seems like a form of blackmail, an ultimatum that the RCMP will refuse to meet with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en unless the Office of the Wet’suwet’en play a role in removing the blockade on the forestry road,” she told The Narwhal in an interview.
Stubbs denied the allegation.
“For a number of years, I and others on my team have been actively involved in both in-person meetings, Zoom meetings and/or phone conversations with a goal to find resolutions that would eliminate the need for enforcement,” he wrote in an email to The Narwhal.
“The difference with the breach of the court injunction in November 2021 was the safety and well being of the workers in the camp that couldn’t leave.”
He explained that coordinating a meeting “would have taken time to organize as there are other parties involved in this matter along with the Hereditary Chiefs. It was not likely to occur in a timely manner that would address the urgency related to the workers that were trapped.”
Stubbs declined to share the nature and content of his phone discussions with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.
Na’moks said he and other chiefs were finalizing the agenda of the proposed meeting on Nov. 17 when the first flight of tactical unit officers arrived on the territory.
“We went in there with full trust and faith and there was no faith or trust given on the side of the RCMP, B.C. and Canada,” he said. “Blackmail, intimidation, psychological warfare, armed forces — which is an invasion — is all in their playbook.”
“It simply is whatever is needed to remove us from our lands, to allow this pipeline and to poison our river and kill our salmon, trample our Rights and Title — our human rights,” he continued, noting the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group, also known as C-IRG, seems to act with impunity.
The RCMP has also been criticized for restricting access to journalists during operations that involve disputes over Indigenous Rights issues. Critics, such as the Canadian Association of Journalists, have said this makes it harder for journalists to document what is happening and ensure that members of the public are informed.
“They’ve been given this overall rubber stamp,” Na’moks said. “C-IRG wasn’t created out of nothing, it was to protect industry and trample on human rights and Indigenous Rights.”
Moments after the Nov. 19 arrests, two RCMP officers can be heard in an audio recording, joking about pipeline opponents who were just detained.
One of them says someone they arrested “is a fucking tool.”
They laugh and continue to make derogatory remarks about others, including an American.
“A nice ride back to the border,” one of them says. “I’d make her walk.”
“Did she say why she’s up here?” the other one asks. “To save the world?”
“Oh, I didn’t ask.”
Their banter doesn’t end there.
“Do they have fucking face paint on too?” one asks. “They’re not orcs?” he adds, seemingly referencing The Lord of the Rings.
Another laughs, “The Uruk-Hai, yeah, they burst from the earth” and makes a guttural growling sound as the first officer giggles. “Hand of Sauron.”
Pasternak, from the Yellowhead Institute, said the audio recording is the latest sign that shows there is racism within the RCMP.
“There’s ample evidence to show that there’s systemic racism within the force,” Pasternak said. “The officers on the ground are meant to have sensitivity training, but they’re operating within a context of extreme racism, which is the context of the injunction itself. The injunction itself is upholding private property law over underlying aboriginal title. And so it creates this refracting funhouse of racism within the entire system.”
In June, 2021, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security published a damning report that highlighted a “resounding acknowledgement of the reality of systemic racism” in the RCMP. The committee made 42 recommendations to address what it described as an urgent need for reform.
On April 28, 2022, a special committee on policing reform in B.C. published a similar report on the province’s Police Act. It noted “clear evidence of systemic racism in policing as well as the colonial structure of police services.” It called on B.C. to set up its own provincial police force and “implement a new … act to govern the provision of policing and public safety services based on values of decolonization, anti-racism, community and accountability.”
The RCMP did not respond to questions about the conduct of its officers, citing an inability to “verify or fact check the information.” The Narwhal offered to play the recordings over the phone but Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said audio would be insufficient evidence to investigate the allegations and pursue disciplinary actions.
“Using audio alone, it would be already difficult for me to conduct the necessary fact checking and follow-up to determine the full context of any conversations that were allegedly recorded, and most certainly not by your end day deadline,” Shoihet wrote in an email.
The Narwhal reiterated its offer to connect with officers on a phone call as per Canadian Association of Journalists ethics guidelines and asked how long RCMP would need before providing comment, but Shoihet said the force would not comment without a copy of the recording.
In response to questions about systemic racism within the force, Shoihet told The Narwhal all RCMP officers receive “cultural awareness training.”
“This training continues throughout the course of our careers,” Shoihet wrote in an email. “Officers who work in and with our Indigenous communities receive additional training and often participate in cultural ceremonies in an effort to foster a greater understanding of that community and the history [that] had helped form it.”
Tactical units left Wet’suwet’en territory after concluding the November arrests and related policing on neighbouring Gitxsan territory.
In February, unknown assailants chased off company security and vandalized equipment, causing millions in damages, according to Coastal GasLink. RCMP has made no arrests to date but maintains a presence in the area and tensions are high.
Three land defenders were arrested in recent weeks, according to those on the ground and the RCMP. After being physically restrained and questioned, each was subsequently released without charges. Those staying at the camp, including Wet’suwet’en Elders, told The Narwhal they’ve been constantly on edge as a result.
“We continue to be concerned about the safety of our workers, who were terrorized during a violent attack at a construction site on Feb. 17, 2022, which is now the focus of a criminal investigation,” Coastal GasLink wrote to The Narwhal. “Our work is lawful, authorized, fully permitted, and has received unprecedented support from all 20 elected Indigenous communities along our project corridor.”
TC Energy, the pipeline company that is pursuing the project, also noted it had signed agreements with 16 nations across the project corridor that offer options for a 10 per cent equity ownership of Coastal GasLink, which is also owned by investment funds in the U.S. and South Korea.
The company said this agreement is “a first for a project of this scale.”
TC Energy added that it would be “inappropriate” for it to comment further since a number of matters remain before the courts, along with an active criminal investigation.
Coastal GasLink security workers have an around-the-clock presence outside Gidimt’en Camp, a remote site near where many of the conflicts have taken place. Members of the RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group continue to conduct daily visits to the site. According to land defenders at the camp and video footage posted to social media, these visits happen at all hours, including in the middle of the night.
Chief Na’moks said it’s important to remember people live year-round at the camp and at places like the nearby Unist’ot’en healing centre.
“I wonder how people would feel if they had people like that come through their yard or their house or kitchen?” he asked. “I expect nothing different from them because they believe that we don’t exist, that we don’t have our Rights and Title.”
“What if it was you? What if they just came through your door right now? How would you feel?”
— With files from Mike De Souza
Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal